The underlying justification for the state Legislature’s constant interference with public schools is that they are failing.
There are many problems with the justification.
Most obviously, few legislators have any training in education. They are adept at adopting ideological templates drafted by such organizations as the American Legislative Exchange Council – the corporate lobbying group that wrote a draft bill that became the Alabama Accountability Act – but they are remarkably ill-informed on the challenges faced by Alabama educators.
If legislators understood their own lack of expertise in education, it would not be dangerous. Alabamians elect a state Board of Education and fund a state Department of Education. Unfortunately, the Legislature steadfastly ignores the advice of experts.
The other flaw in the Legislature’s justification for imposing its will on state and local education officials is that Alabama’s schools are improving.
Alabama had the nation’s fourth highest increase in graduation rates between 2002 and 2008. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress ranked Alabama as No. 2 in the nation in gains in fourth-grade reading scores. Alabama is one of only four states to receive the National Council on Teacher Quality’s highest rating on teacher preparedness programs. The state ranked No. 1 in the nation in the percentage increase in students passing Advanced Placement exams in math, science and English.
These advances have been made despite the fact that inflation-adjusted K-12 education funding has dropped more than 22 percent since 2008.
They have been made despite the fact that, since 2010, the Legislature has been on a relentless and successful mission to force the Education Trust Fund to cover noneducational expenses historically covered by the General Fund.
While Alabama’s public schools are improving, many are far from where they need to be. In studying the schools with unacceptable outcomes, what becomes obvious is that they have a single trait in common: high poverty rates.
A study released Tuesday found the number of homeless students in Alabama public schools rose by 49.3 percent between the 2006-2007 and the 2009-2010 school years. More than half of the students in the state’s K-12 schools receive free or reduced-cost lunches because of their low household incomes. Numerous studies have concluded that poverty is the greatest impediment to a student’s academic success.
The task of improving educational success in Alabama despite high poverty rates is complex. If it can happen without additional resources, it will require experts who understand the interrelationship between poverty and education.
The Legislature has demonstrated no expertise in either the challenges of poverty or of education. If it can find the will to increase funding rather than decreasing it for the Education Trust Fund, the experts Alabama already employs at the state and local levels can seek to improve education outcomes.
If it is unwilling to increase funding, then the Legislature’s best move is obvious. It needs to stay out of the way.